TED Conversations

Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review


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"Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?"

I'll be giving a TED U Talk in Longbeach at the end of the month. I'll be asking "Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?" I think that blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I'd love to know what the TED Community thinks our difficulties are - or, even if the idea is true at all.

Here's a URL to the story I wrote in MIT Technology Review on the subject: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429690/why-we-cant-solve-big-problems/


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    Mar 6 2013: Years ago, the first TED talk I ever watched was by Liz Coleman:


    She made a great point that higher education corrals us into specialization, often at the expense of having the skill of integrative thinking with other fields. So, when specialists are called on to solve the world's multi-faceted problems, they tend to work isolated in their own heads, unable to truly understand how something from another field can provide synergy with what they can offer. This is why we can't solve big problems.

    For me personally, I think the root of the problem is two things: we don't philosophize anymore and we are hopelessly classist and protectionist. First, it's rare that we step back and look at entire systems to understand them. For example, we'll recycle our cans like good citizens, but not invest the time to understand if cans and what's contained in them are worth the health, public money and environmental issues they create.

    And we are classist and protectionist. MIT itself may have publishing biases toward high profiled projects, engineers, or ideas that will attract more attention / philanthropic funds (I'm making this up!). We don't poke around developing countries enough to see if there are better ideas there. "Innovation" is disproportionately a Western, male, moneyed thing. Clinical trials showing old medicine that cures new ailments have no potential for patent-protection (and therefore riches for pharmaceutical companies) and are ignored. This is probably true of dichloroacetate on cancer cells: http://bit.ly/Tq0Uo5

    This is why we slog along, IMHO.

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